Rabies is one of history’s most feared and most misunderstood diseases. Despite its eradication in first world dogs, it still lives on in wild animals and in the developing world. And there is still no cure. From the battlefields of the Iliad to 21st century American hospitals, rabies has a long and varied pedigree of influencing human lives.
This is a fascinating and entertaining look at rabies throughout both history and culture. It may be obvious but if you get upset by the thought of dogs suffering, you might want to avoid this book. Rabies is after all a canine disease, one that is inherently linked with dogs in our psyche, for very good reason, which this book explores. Not only the disease is distressing but there has been a lot of violence towards man’s best friend in the name of rabies too.
The book is split up into themed chapters. After a thorough introduction, rabies is traced through Greek mythology applying our modern understanding of the disease to sudden and inexplicable rages in the Iliad and beyond. Next up, a journey through the Middle Ages and all the weird and wonderful treatments, mostly ineffective, often harmful, that physicians of the time inflicted on sufferers. If you’re faint-hearted you will probably jump ship here (and that’s for the best, rabies isn’t a pleasant illness).
I was looking forward to the chapter on the links between rabies and the myths of vampires and werewolves. From the very first page, the accounts of rabid animals bring zombies to mind and again and again, the tales of animal transformation are mentioned in its history. But the authors dismiss the link all too easily. They say that the tales of werewolves and vampires have too many differences to be describing those infected with rabies. They are missing one key element here; the human tendency to embellish stories. They change with time, especially oral folk stories. And another bit of “evidence” that they aren’t linked directly contradicts something in an early chapter. Werewolves who were captured and interrogated, were lucid once they turned back into men and this would be impossible if they were actually rabid. Yet we have already been told that nearing the end of the disease, the victim can have moments of lucidity.
My favourite chapter was the story of Louis Pasteur, who is most well known for giving us pasteurisation. Here, it follows his work on creating the rabies vaccine and the legacy he left behind. I seriously found myself getting emotional by the end. It’s amazing the difference in generosity between the early days of pharmaceuticals and now.
The book does seem to cycle back round to the fictionalisation of rabies in literature, and is much happier to attribute I Am Legend’s vampires, and the zombies that sprung forth in later works, to rabies. Which made me even more annoyed about those werewolves! But going forward, there are tales of survivors and the one experimental treatment that could save you if you don’t get the vaccine early enough. I know for sure if I’m ever stupid enough to get bitten by a rabid bat and not get post-exposure vaccinations, I’m going to be taking this book along to the hospital with me and demand to be put in a coma!
There is also a case study of Bali’s more recent rabies outbreak and a conclusion that touches on some interesting medical research that’s going on right now. It does meander a little bit and go off on tangents that seem a bit off topic at first. Still, if the tangents are things you’re interested in, they are worth it; I liked reading about Polidori and psychology of the human relationship with dogs. Just don’t expect a focused essay on rabies.
Rabid is not currently published in the UK but you can get your hands on the US paperback easily if you fancy reading it.
Also reviewed @ The Book Garden
Source: Won from The Book Garden